Joshua Reviews Ryan McGarry’s Code Black [Theatrical Review]


To many people, the medical field is full of intense situations, bewilderingly attractive doctors and romantic tomfoolery and skulduggery. In the age of various doctor-centric media following ostensibly that model, people can often forget that these men and women not only have to deal with a person’s life being in his or her hands, but also budgetary politics, picking and choosing between patients based on often arbitrary systems of grading a person’s suffering and other various issues that don’t really get their spotlight on network TV or in studio motion pictures.

Thankfully documentarians like Ryan McGarry are here to show the world what it’s truly like to be a modern emergency room physician.

A doctor himself, McGarry’s debut documentary feature Code Black tells the story of one of this nation’s most hectic work places, the emergency room in the Los Angeles County Hospital. The home of the iconic “C-Booth” trauma bay, billed as the home of the field of Emergency Medicine, the LACH features some of the most talented physicians in this country, working with some of the highest risk patients at the lowest rungs of this country’s economic structure. Low income patients and those without insurance fill this ER to the brim, and the film, in all of its raw footage of actual emergency procedures, is a beautiful and often infuriating look at a system that is in many ways failing the men and women who need it the absolute most.

At its very best, the film is a completely immersive piece of documentary filmmaking. Interspersed with various talking head interview segments and a somewhat jarring dinner discussion between the group of doctors, the film really comes alive when we begin to not only learn what “C-Booth” meant to the world of medicine in this country, but just how hectic and intense it was up until the hospital moved to a new building to cover new earthquake codes. The film has beautiful cinematography, and while it isn’t for those with a weak stomach, the film pulls absolutely no punches visually, really showing just how vital this field is, in all of its highs and the absolute lows. McGarry uses his RED camera to full effect, and Richard Burton’s sound design is superb, both making this an immersive and engaging feature.

As an issue documentary, the film also really succeeds. The back end of the picture digs deeper into how the current state of American healthcare makes it almost impossible to get to multiple patients with any consistency, as it takes almost twice as long to fill out forms for the patients than it does to actually treat them. Discussing the heartbreak that comes with having to tell a patient that they have to go to someone else to get a cure, someone else who only takes the type of insurance they can’t afford, the film really comes into its own as an issue picture as it hits its final act. Clocking in at just over 80 minutes, the film breezes to that moment, and is an absolutely engaging look at emergency medicine.

Making its theatrical debut in NYC at the IFC Center this Friday, the film will expand in the following weeks, and for those interested in this type of documentary, it’s an absolute must watch. A thrilling and moving look at the field of emergency medicine, this award winning documentary is a tough watch, but one that will hopefully add a new voice to the ever raging healthcare debate in this country.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.